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Talking to Your Child About Hospitalization

Children hugging mother in Healing Garden.

Children’s National Hospital understands that you may be unsure about what to tell your child about medical treatment and surgery. Here are some age-appropriate guidelines from our Child Life Specialists to help prepare both you and your child.

Speak With Your Child’s Doctor

Find out from your child’s doctor what his or her next appointment involves and get as much information as possible. You may have questions such as: will my child receive a shot, will there be blood work and what medical equipment will be used?

Timing is Everything

Give your child at least one or two days’ notice before a doctor’s appointment. Too much advanced warning may lead the child to worry and focus on the event. It’s also helpful to provide opportunities, when age appropriate, for your child to play doctor with their stuffed animals or dolls, using toy medical instruments. Medical play helps your child become familiar and comfortable with the equipment that will be used during their visit.

Share Information With Your Child

When sharing information with your child, make sure that you understand the procedure so that you can easily and confidently answer any questions your child may have. Be truthful to your child and do not lie, but make sure they have the information they need. It’s also helpful to rehearse the visit with your child and take them through what he or she will think, feel or see.

Use Language Your Child Can Understand

Make sure you carefully choose what language you use to explain a procedure to a child. Words like “shot” can immediately put a child into a panic, so try to soften the expectations of a vaccination by explaining that he or she may experience a “pinch” or an “ouchie” at this visit. Remind the child that the treatment will make them healthier.

Distract Your Child

For all ages, it’s important to bring comfort items to a visit. For infants, caregivers provide comfort, but for toddlers and preschoolers, let the child help choose toys, books or blankets that they want to bring to the visit. These items can be used to pass the time in the waiting room and also can be used to distract a child during a procedure.

Caregivers know their children best, so if you have specific concerns about your child’s visit, do not hesitate to call your child’s doctor prior to the visit. 

How to Help Your Child Prepare for Surgery 

Having surgery can be a frightening experience for a child. The more comfortable and prepared you are for this experience, the more comfortable your child will be. The following are some suggestions on how to prepare your child for surgery.

Additional Preparation Resources

Child life specialist with young girl looking at tablet

Children’s child life specialists are available for consultations and visits. Contact the Child Life Services program at 202-476-8939. There also is a pre-surgical tour for kids. For more tips on how to prepare your child for surgery, visit Having Surgery.